Author's Note: Here's the second half. Enjoy and please review! It's back to "Deluge in the Wasteland" for me. See you there!
He took the stairs out of the cave two at a time, thinking that he would be more rational with some coffee and food in his system anyway. His father was in the kitchen, just as Dick had said, laptop open and a plate with a half-eaten sandwich at his right hand. Jason's brows furrowed for a moment, but he decided not to ask. Instead he headed for the fridge, greeting Bruce with a nod. The older man looked up from the screen.
"Morning." The term was used very loosely in their house, not so much indicating the time of day as the point when someone woke up or crawled out of the cave.
"Morning." Jason put on the coffee and grabbed a bowl to pour the cereal.
"How are you?"
He paused, sliding onto the barstool across from his father. Maybe it wasn't such a great thing to spill his guts out every time. He was a grown man, after all. Wasn't it time he started dealing with his problems on his own.
"Okay." His voice was carefully casual.
Bruce nodded. "Anything you... want to talk about?"
So much for dealing with his own problems. Jason rolled his eyes. "Come on, Dad. I thought the world's greatest detective could be more subtle than this. Timmy ratted me out, didn't he?"
Bruce held up both hands. "Your brother just left a note saying he'll be back in a few hours. Since Tim almost never checks in with me unless I ask first, I figured he was trying to tell me to watch out for something in his absence. And since you're the person in this house he spends the most amount of time with…"
Jason rolled his eyes again. "Everyone in this family is so fuckin' nosy."
"You know you usually start cursing when..."
"Yeah, yeah, I know. So come on, out with it. Let's have the sage advice."
The corner of Bruce's mouth twitched, whether in a smile or sign of annoyance, he didn't know. "I just wanted to say that I know it's hard to think logically sometimes when something feels so personal."
Jason almost said something along the lines of "You sure make it look easy" but managed to back. Heaven knew he'd hurt his father enough with poorly placed, thoughtless words that he never really meant. Bruce must have seen something in his expression though, because he sighed and seemed to take a minute to compose himself.
"I skimmed over what Tim left, and I know what you're probably thinking. But parents are human too, Jason." He said finally. "We... make mistakes. Sometimes horrible, seemingly unforgivable ones, but when that happens, as humans, we'd like for our children to forgive and give us a second chance if possible. I don't know the details of your case, but just keep that in mind throughout your investigations. If it turns out the mother is really responsible, fine, you'll take care of it, but you have to keep other possibilities open as well."
Jason understood. Really, he did. But it was hard for his emotions to catch up to the logic of it all. At the very least he had to try for the sake of the little girl. If his theories were clouded, a misstep might leave her in a lot of trouble.
"Are you gonna be around?" He asked his father. "I might need someone to bounce theories off of while Tim's out."
Bruce nodded. "That, and anything else you want to talk about. Your parents... any of them..."
"...don't count unless they go by Bruce Wayne," Jason cut him off. "Don't start, Dad, unless you want to talk about your parents, too."
It was cruel, and he instantly regretted the words, but this time Bruce was smiling.
"No, see, the 'Dad' title means I'm morally obligated to deal with your issues before mine."
"And since there are so many of us, you're guaranteed to be busy pretty much forever," Jason concluded. "Convenient."
"Very. Eat something, and then take a break or look at that research again if you want to, and if you see your brother before I do, tell him I don't want him in the field until he gets some real rest. Caffeine alone is not a substitute."
Jason smirked. Hadn't he just been thinking the same thing earlier? "Does anything ever get past you?"
"That's where the 'Batman' title comes in."
Funny, Jason thought. When he was a kid, if anyone asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, he would have easily answered 'Batman'. Now? Hey, why limit himself? 'Batman' was just one aspect of what his father was, and he wanted to be everything.
"Oh," he suddenly remembers. "If little D asks, I complained about him notoriously and you said he's indefinitely band from poking his nose in any of my cases. Just confirm it."
A single brow went up. "Do I want to know?"
"Probably not. He butted in and stomped his foot, so in my infinite maturity, I called him names. We're square."
Tim returned to the manor earlier than he'd expected, but the combined might of Bruce and Jason forced him in the direction of his bed instead of the cave as he'd initially intended. He fought them half-heartedly, but neither would budge.
"Six hours," Bruce said firmly. "No less."
"Four," Tim tried.
"Six." His adoptive father's expression didn't crack a millimeter.
"Five," he gave a little and looked pleadingly at his older brother. "Jay, tell him I'm fine."
"Hey, don't look at me, kid," Jason held up both hands. "I was going to bug you about it too, just didn't expect to have backup. Look, it's a little past six now, so we can't go out for a while anyway. You go sleep, and we can talk about where we're going on the way into the city, say around midnight? I won't go without you, I promise."
"Fine, fine," Tim sighed and trudged off to up the stairs.
In his room he shrugged out of his jacket, kicked off his shoes, and fell forward onto the bed. Nice, soft mattress… Be up in a second. He was in his room, so technically no one had to know he wasn't sleeping. His laptop was just on his bedside table. He could reach out and take it.
Tim was asleep before even finishing the thought.
He must have been much more tired than he thought, because he didn't wake up on his own. Jason, sitting on the edge of the bed, was shaking him awake, light enough not to jolt. He pushed himself up and rubbed his eyes.
"Come on, sleeping beauty," Jason padded the covers. "Time to get up. It's game time."
"Time?" Tim tried to unsuccessfully hide a yawn. "You have a plan already?"
"Don't sound so shocked," his brother mocked and handed him a nutrition bar. "Eat. Change. I'll meet you down in the cave."
Tim unwrapped the bar and took a bite, and Jason rose, apparently satisfied he wouldn't fall right back down. "Are we swinging or driving?"
"Driving," Jason told him. "And we're taking the bikes, not the car. It's too big for where we're going."
"When'd you fix up yours?"
Even if he was more of a software person, Tim had been offering to help Jason customize his bike for months with the older always having something better to do. Judging by Jason's grin, it was just where he left it.
"No," his brother confirmed. "I'm taking Damian's."
It wasn't like the cars; most of the motorcycles they had started life as regular – though extremely high-end – bikes. Then came the gadgets, on-board computers, and other customizations, things that Damian was pretty good at. But the thing about their youngest brother was that like many perfectly normal children, especially those with older siblings, Damian fancied himself older and bigger than he really was and thus even his favorite bike did not match his smaller frame. In fact Jason, with all his bulk, fit quite comfortably on it.
"Did he piss you off today or something?" Tim ventured a guess.
"What?" Jason had the gal to look innocent.
"Come on," he gave him a look. "You two usually get along well enough, considering you're you, and he's…"
"…al Ghul spawn?"
"Really? That's where you're going now?"
Not that it wasn't true, but it wasn't something anyone, especially Damian, liked to be reminded of. Tim was starting to seriously regret encouraging him to take the case instead of handing it over to the police as per usual low-level stuff. Between snapping at the missing girl's young mother and this, Jason was just not handling it well.
When they arrived in Gotham's East End, they left the bikes behind a trash bin in an ally. Even if they were discovered they had enough internal defenses to be pretty much theft-proof, even there. Taking the usual rooftop approach, Jason began scaling up the fire escape of one of the buildings. Tim followed.
"The kid," Jason said almost musingly just as Tim made it across the ledge. He wasn't looking at him.
"Little D. He wanted to poke around the stuff you left for me. Just curious, nothing bad, but I wouldn't let him, so he got mad."
"And," Tim asked carefully though he was sure he already knew the answer. "Why didn't you let him see?"
Jason shrugged a shoulder. "He's seen some pretty fucked up shit. Missing kid case is completely G-rated for him, no matter how it turns out. But these kind of cases get… personal. I didn't want him to see. Especially if the mom was involved."
Yup, that's pretty much exactly what he'd expected. Jason was not only dealing with his own memories of less-than-fantastic maternal figures, but he was also trying to protect Damian. In his own way.
"You're a good brother," Tim put a hand on his shoulder, then added. "Even when you're being an ass."
"Remember that next time I bug you about something," the older man grinned.
They only had to make it across a few rooftops, with Jason in the lead, before he stopped Tim with a raised hand. The teen crouched on the ledge next to him, and Jason pointed to the edge of his domino mask. Both switched to night vision.
"So I called up Sanderson's parole officer," Jason whispered, all business. "Lady said he showed up for the first few check-ins, but not the last one. Any other place, they'd issue a warrant already, but it's Gotham. Bigger fish to fry than a small-time crook."
"Is this where he lives?" Tim asked, his voice just as low.
"It's where his old crew hangs out," Jason replied. "I got his address from the parole officer but figure we might get some answers here."
And you have some targets for your temper, Tim thought, but he supposed it was better than him taking it out on their little brother or the missing girl's mom. Jason always felt better when he was beating up thugs.
Unfortunately aside from a few bruised knuckles and the discovery of a small cocaine stash, they ended up with virtually nothing. Sanderson wasn't there. Jason surveyed the secured room while Tim tied up the seven dealers, hands cuffed behind their backs and secured on the ground next to a thick metal pillar.
"Alright, listen up!" The Red Hood turned to the thugs. "I'm looking for someone. A Carter Sanderson. Twenty-seven and freshly out of the pen. Heard he used to run with you looser. Anyone seen 'im?"
"What do the bats want with Sanderson?" one piped in.
"That's our business," the elder turned sharply on him. "You know where he is?"
There was stretch of silence as the men looked to one another, some in confusion, others with clearly questioning looks on their faces. Red Robin figured it was his turn to step in as the good cop of the duo.
"Better tell him if you know anything," he advised. "My friend's been in a really bad mood lately. Hate to see any of your faces at the end of it."
Their weariness visibly grew. Everyone knew that Batman and his people didn't kill, but the Red Hood had a well-deserved reputation, one that didn't instantly go away just because he started running with Red Robin. The Arkham lunatics were unlikely to be put off much by it, but for the average street thug, the prospect of pissing him off was more than uncomfortable.
"Okay, okay," another, a man in a violet bandana covered in white skulls, finally cracked. "He was here a few days ago. Asked if we had any quick sells he could get in on. Sounded like he needed the cash."
"He say why?" The Red Hood pressed, but the man just shook his head.
Red Robin looked at his partner. "We should check out his place. If he's still around."
"Right." His brother nodded and shot one more look at the tied up thugs. "Cops are on their way. "Be good boys and stay put."
Sanderson's apartment was only a few blocks away, minutes via grappling hooks and rooftops. They landed on the one with a clear view of the windows, the larger of the two most likely leading to the living room, the smaller, the bedroom. Red Robin pointed between the two, a silent question. The Red Hood pointed at himself, then the living room window, then to him and the bedroom one.
Jason was not expecting opposition when he swung next to Sanderson's apartment window, landing soundlessly on the side and easily picking the lock on the metal bars that surrounded it. Even if it was the second story, in this part of Gotham, one put up with less-than esthetically pleasing things like that if he ever expected any pretense of safety. Even an ex-con just out of prison who probably never wanted to see bars again. Once they were out of the way, he manually broke the lock on the window and slipped inside.
As Jason expected, there was a huge open suitcase next to the door on the other side of the room from him, clothes thrown haphazardly inside. A man who he assumed was Sanderson walked briskly from the adjacent hallway with another handful, but stopped short when his eyes landed on the Red Hood standing casually at his window. Jason crossed his arms and smirked.
"Where're you goin', Carter?" He added an almost sing-song lilt to his voice.
"The hell outta here." The man tensed, but to his credit, he didn't run or try to fight him.
"Only if it's back to Black Gate. You're out on early parole for good behavior, Carter, and you blow it the second you step food in the free world. Stupid."
He didn't say anything, just remained tensed as if he was waiting for something. A second later, when his partner's voice called from the bedroom, the Red Hood knew it was that. Carter might have thought twice about running, so the vigilante grabbed his shirt collar and dragged him along. He wasn't at all surprised when he opened the door and saw Red Robin kneeling by the mattress on the floor next to a child he recognized from the pictures as Leah. The whole room might have been dingy, but the little girl appeared perfectly clean and unharmed.
"You should really start talking right about now."
Even with the cowl and lenses, he knew Red Robin was glaring. Now that they had the real perpetrator, he had no problem letting some anger show. Jason gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head and motioned for his brother to rise and take over guarding standing by Carter. They switched places, and Jason crouched by the girl.
"Hi, Leah." He used the lightest, gentlest voice he could muster.
The little girl looked at him with apprehensive but not outright frightened brown eyes. "Hi."
"Do you know who I am?" He tried.
To his – and probably everyone else's – surprise, she nodded. "You're the Red Hood, and that's Red Robin." She pointed to Tim.
Jason smiled. "You're a very smart, very brave little girl."
She smiled a little shyly. "Everyone knows you don't hurt kids. The bad men don't stand so close to the playground fence anymore either."
He knew what she meant. Those dealers that were still around from his early days after his return to Gotham remembered his declaration that he would put a bullet in anyone he found dealing around schools or playgrounds or to children in general. Jason wouldn't kill them now, not because he suddenly thought they didn't deserve it but because of what that would do to his father, but he was happy to see the threat still held.
"Right again," he confirmed. "Me and red bird protect people."
"I don't need pro..." she stumbled a little over the word then pointed to Carter who looked back and them unmoving. "I'm with my daddy, and he said we're going to a new place. A better place where there aren't any bad men."
Behind the lenses of his domino mask, Jason blinked but kept his face pleasant and neutral for the girl's benefit. "Aren't you going to miss your mommy?" He asked gently, as if there was nothing else wrong with what she was saying. "I know she misses you a lot."
The girl shifted uncomfortably, embarrassed. She looked to her father, but he was giving her no signs that Jason could see. He looked up at Red Robin and nodded his head towards the door.
"Take him to the living room," he said, "and get his side of the story, whatever it is. He won't run." He fixed a hard gaze on the man. "Will you, Carter?"
"No." The ex-con said simply. "You swear you won't hurt her?"
"We're with Batman," Jason jabbed a thumb at his own chest where the crimson bat symbol stood bright against the black-gray background of his Kevlar.
When His brother and the man were out of ear shot, he focused all his attention on the little girl again. "So it was your dad who took you?"
She nodded. "I was scared at first 'cause I didn't really remember him. But I'm not scared anymore. He's really nice. He gave me this." She held out a stuffed rabbit for Jason's inspection.
"That's pretty cool. What'd you have for dinner last night?" he asked.
"McDonald's Happy Meal," she answered promptly. "It had a toy in it too."
"Awesome. And this morning?"
"Cereal with marshmallows. Daddy let me put chocolate milk in it instead of the regular kind. It was so yummy."
"I'll have to remember to try that," Jason smiled, satisfied at least that she'd been taken care of. Leah smiled back, then suddenly fired off a question of her own.
"Is Batman your daddy?"
The question didn't surprise him. Even a lot of adults thought that the various Robins, past and present, were somehow related to Batman. The degrees of those speculations varied – Gordon, Jason was certain, must have known the truth – but kids often tended to take things literally. Everyone knew that, which was why Jason had no problem confirming.
"Yeah, he is."
"Does he scare you sometimes?" Now she was looking at him in awe.
Jason smiled. "No. Only bad guys should be scared of Batman."
"Oh," Leah chewed on her lower lip. "You think my daddy is a bad guy?"
The clarity of the question did surprise him. Jason tilted his head slightly, "What makes you say that?"
"'Cause you're here."
"Good point." She kept waiting for an answer, and he sighed. "Leah, it's hard to explain… I'm glad he didn't hurt you, but he shouldn't have taken you from your mommy. She's responsible for you. Did he say why he took you?"
She was looking down again, a gesture he now understood to be apprehension. She didn't want to get either of her parents into trouble. Finally, in a very low voice, she said, "Daddy told me mommy used to be very sick, and he's afraid that she might become sick again and won't be able to take care of me."
The split second it took his brain to process the meaning, Jason just stared at her blankly. Then he felt like slapping his forehead. Wasn't that the same thing that he himself had… And Carter would think that, wouldn't he? If he'd gotten Shana into drugs to begin with. He looked back to Leah.
"Can you wait here for a minute? I'm going to get Red Robin to come stay with you while I talk to your dad."
Tim was already heading his way. They met half way in the tight hallway between the bedroom and living room. He must have gotten a similar story from Carter, but there was no sign of an 'I told you so' on his face even though Jason knew he deserved it. Instead his brother asked in a light voice:
"Do you feel like we just got in the middle of a really confused domestic misunderstanding?"
"Something like that," he replied non-comitially. When it came down to it, misunderstand or not, a little girl still had been taken from her home. "Hang out with the kid. I'm gonna have a talk with him."
"He sounded desperate," Tim said quietly. "No one would hire him here, that's why he went to the dealers again looking to make a quick buck. Enough to get him and Leah out of Gotham." He paused, as if unsure if Jason would like what he said next. "I told him to try the Park Row Housing Project."
"Of course you did." Jason said dryly but he just couldn't bring himself to be mad.
In the end, Carter had reluctantly promised not to interfere when they returned Leah to her mother. Red Robin had assured him that he saw no signs that Shana was using and that if Carter kept clean and out of trouble himself, there was a good chance of getting visitation. The man seemed resigned to it, but as much as he disliked him for having caused all this trouble, a small part of Jason was mad he didn't fight harder for his kid. No one said every thought had to make perfect sense.
With Leah safe at home, the two of them returned to their bikes. Red Robin looked at him.
"Are we going to keep patrolling?"
"No," Jason shook his head. "Dad and Dick are out tonight. They can handle it."
"Okay," His brother climbed on the bike but didn't start it. "Are you mad at me?"
"What?" Jason blinked. "No. Why would I be?"
"Because I told Carter about the housing project." The teen bit the inside of his cheek. "I can get him work, but if you don't want him there… It's our project, Jay, not just mine."
"No," Jason cut him off. "You did the right thing. He needs a shot. Maybe it'll help him stay clean. Leah likes him, and there aren't many kids here who can say they have half-descent parents. Misguided as those two seem to be."
Tim looked relieved. "So home?"
"What are you doing?"
Jason opened his eyes very slowly. From his side-crow position on the mat, Damian looked funny, slightly sideways. His youngest brother, who shouldn't have been awake at three in the morning but of course was, was scowling as usual. He didn't come too close, probably still wary after the verbal lashing he received last time.
"Yoga." Jason replied calmly, his breathing perfectly even as he lowered himself back down on his feet before slowly shifting into one of the Warrior poses. "With a little Thi Chi mixed in."
"Why?" Damian asked.
"It keeps me from going into a homicidal rage." The boy stared and frowned. Jason smiled at him. "I'm kidding, Damian. Kind of. It helps improve breathing, flexibility, and yeah, it does help my mood. Gets my mind centered again after a case."
"Oh." The boy came closer standing almost directly in front of him. "Did Father teach you?"
For a moment Jason was tempted to lie, but then he shook his head. "No, but I can teach you if you want."
"Now?" Damian looked cautiously optimistic.
"Sure. Go upstairs and change into something comfortable and come back down. I'll finish my exercises and we'll start at the beginning."
The boy sprinted up the cave steps, and Jason thought he might have caught a grin in the corner of his mouth. He smiled to himself. They might never acknowledge their earlier fight, but this was one way he could make amends to his youngest brother.
It was close to dawn when Jason heard footsteps down the hall from his room then the soft sound of the door to Bruce's study shift open and then close again. He got up, still dressed in his usual jeans and black t-shirt, and headed down the hall, feeling only a little silly for acting like a little kid waiting for his dad to come home from work.
"Hey." He opened the door carefully. Bruce looked up in his direction.
"Hey. How's the search going?"
"Case closed." Jason shrugged, flopping down on the sofa next to his father's desk. "Ridiculously ugly misunderstanding, but kid's not hurt. She's back with her mom."
"Good." His father said, and Jason noticed that he didn't ask for details, not even who was responsible. He trusted him that much. Still Jason told him the rest of the story. He didn't mention how Carter's assumptions pretty much exactly matched his own, and like Tim, Bruce didn't point it out.
"Her folks," Jason added in the end. "They're kinda messed up, but they're trying. Tim's going to hook up her old man with a job for this new project of his."
Bruce nodded. "Carter acted rashly, but on some level, I do understand why. It's hard to be the... other parent."
Jason frowned at him. "I don't get it." Jason frowned at him.
His father smiled, a little wearily. "That's because you choose not to get it."
Jason was quiet for a long moment. He did get it, but for his father's sake, chose not to delve too deeply into it. No matter how hard he tried to hide it, sometimes Jason caught looks of... sadness from him whenever Dick or Tim visited their respective parents' graves on various anniversaries. Bruce would absolutely never discourage it – he'd even made a few attempts to get Jason to see his own deceased... relatives – but Jason knew what their father was thinking; for those few hours, Dick and Tim weren't his sons.
"You don't have to share me," he said quietly, then looked up at the older man when another thought occurred to him. "Or Damian."
Bruce's lips pressed together in a thin line. He tried to smile, but in that moment, Jason got it; Damian may have been their fathers only biological child, but he was also the one he had to share most of all.
"Shed the light on all the ones who never thought they would become
A father, mother asking why this world can be so cold."